The SDG 12 (“Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”), in spite of presenting a relatively simple concept, probably represents the most paradigmatic change among the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In a planet in which the western way of life has become aspirational, consuming and producing less is a paradox. It is also extremely important, as the planet is unable to keep up with the increased demand for water, energy, food and other resources needed to sustain the growing global population and growing middle classes.
The particular importance of SDG 12 lies in it underpinning every other SDG. However, its concept creates a lot of resistance. If on one hand, ensuring sustainable consumption and production poses a threat to “business as usual”, then on the other hand it is an incredible economic, social and environmental opportunity. Humankind needs to learn how “to do more and better with less”. It is important to keep in mind that this SDG does not concern only the business sectors and the consumers, but also the supply chains, basic services, decent jobs and a better quality of life for all.
Sustainable production and consumption have been on the international agenda since the 1990s, initially through the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, better known as the Agenda 21. However, current increasing food and water scarcity, climate change, loss of biodiversity, contamination of the oceans and all other aspects that together compose the Post-2015 Agenda and its SDGs make a stronger case for the implementation of Sustainable Consumption and Production policies, not only in the developed world, but also in the Global South.
The patterns of consumption and quality of life around the planet are highly unequal. Green House Gas emissions per capita, daily food intake per capita, number of vehicles per person, liters of water used per person/day, and so forth can be used as proxies for this disparity. Regardless of the indicator chosen, it is very likely that the average figures for a person from the developed countries will be much higher than the equivalent average in a developing country.
The SDG 12 proposes to reduce inequality related to the use of natural resources. To achieve that, developed countries are called upon to take the lead in the adoption of sustainable production and consumption practices. By doing so, it is possible to improve the living conditions of the poor and to reduce the demand for resources by the rich. For example, a reduction in per capita food waste could also have an impact on reducing global food prices, which in turn would benefit the poor. In addition, an improvement of purchasing power for the poor should ideally come together with an increased awareness of sustainable consumption.
A key requirement for the implementation and adoption of SDG 12 is education. Policy makers, business owners and consumers need to be aware of the benefits of practicing and demanding sustainable production and consumption. Cooperation between those sectors will be crucial. Among the proposed measures for the implementation of this SDG are: enhanced use of renewable energy, green buildings, increased life span of products, smart packaging, reduction of food losses, increased general efficiency, integrated urban planning, end of subsidies for fossil fuels, global cooperation, and increased technology transfer.
In the medium term, the 10-year Framework of Programmes (10YFP) adopted at Rio+20 in 2012, and the first target of SDG 12, will enhance international cooperation to accelerate the implementation of sustainable production and consumption, while considering local needs and priorities. The current programs in the 10YFP are: Sustainable tourism; Sustainable lifestyles and education; Sustainable public procurement; Consumer information; Sustainable buildings and construction; and Sustainable food systems.
Since our planet is interconnected, local actions will deliver global results. For instance, the reduction in the use of chemicals and pesticides will reduce their release to air, water and soil and minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment. SDG 12 is opening a new door to humankind: a world in which sustainable consumption will no longer be a trend of the few, but where prevention and the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) will be commonplace, therefore reducing the gap between rich and poor, and preserving natural resources.
Facts and figures related to Sustainable Consumption and Production[i]
- Each year, an estimated one third of all food produced – equivalent to 1.3 billion tons worth around $1 trillion – ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers, or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices.
- If people worldwide switched to energy efficient lightbulbs the world would save US$120 billion annually.
- Should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles.
- Less than 3 per cent of the world’s water is fresh (drinkable), of which 2.5 per cent is frozen in the Antarctica, Arctic and glaciers. Humanity must therefore rely on 0.5 per cent for all of our fresh water needs.
- More than 1 billion people still do not have access to fresh water. Nevertheless, humans are polluting water faster than nature can recycle and purify water in rivers and lakes.
- Excessive use of water contributes to the global water stress.
- Water is free from nature but the infrastructure needed to deliver it is expensive.
- Despite technological advances that have promoted energy efficiency gains, energy use in OECD countries will continue to grow another 35 per cent by 2020. Commercial and residential energy use is the second most rapidly growing area of global energy use after transport.
- In 2002, the motor vehicle stock in OECD countries was 550 million vehicles (75 per cent of which were personal cars). A 32 per cent increase in vehicle ownership is expected by 2020. At the same time, motor vehicle kilometers are projected to increase by 40 per cent and global air travel is projected to triple in the same period.
- Households consume 29 per cent of global energy and consequently contribute to 21 per cent of resultant CO2 emissions.
- Only one-fifth of the world’s final energy consumption in 2013 was from renewables.
- While substantial environmental impacts from food occur in the production phase (agriculture, food processing), households influence these impacts through their dietary choices and habits. This consequently affects the environment through food-related energy consumption and waste generation.
- 3 billion tons of food is wasted every year while almost 1 billion people go undernourished and another 1 billion hungry.
- Overconsumption of food is detrimental to our health and the environment. 5 billion people globally are overweight or obese.
- Land degradation, declining soil fertility, unsustainable water use, overfishing and marine environment degradation are all lessening the ability of the natural resource base to supply food.
The food sector accounts for around 30 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption and accounts for around 22 per cent of total Greenhouse Gas emissions. The sustainable development we call for will only be possible when all countries make sure that their consumption and production patterns do not undermine the planet’s environmental boundaries, as well as the social and economic conditions in other countries. Let us rethink our behavioral patterns and start contributing to a more sustainable world!
See this informative short film on the relationship between food waste and resource waste, and check out our blog on consumption patterns in a new geological epoch. Take your Global Footprint Quiz to find out how sustainable you live, and get to know the other SDGs at http://www.globalgoals.org.
[i] from: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-consumption-production/ accessed September 13th, 2015